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Chapter 16

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« on: January 29, 2023, 10:36:14 am »

THE DAY fixed for the trial of Frederick Birchill was wet, dismal, and dreary. The rain pelted intermittently through a hazy, chilly atmosphere, filling the gutters and splashing heavily on the slippery pavements. But in spite of the rain a long queue, principally of women, assembled outside the portals of the Old Bailey long before the time fixed for the opening of the court. At the private entrance to the courthouse arrived fashionably-dressed ladies accompanied by well-groomed men. They had received cards of admission and had seats reserved for them in the body of the court. Many of them had personally known the late Sir Horace Fewbanks, and their interest in the trial of the man accused of his murder was intensified by the rumours afloat that there were to be some spicy revelations concerning the dead judge's private life.

The arrival of Mr. Justice Hodson, who was to preside at the trial, caused a stir among some of the spectators, many of whom belonged to the criminal class. Sir Henry Hodson had presided at so many murder trials that he was known among them as "the Hanging Judge." Among the spectators were some whom Sir Henry had put into mourning at one time or another; there were others whom he had deprived of their bread-winners for specified periods. These spectators looked at him with curiosity, fear, and hatred. Mr. Holymead, K.C., drove up in a taxi-cab a few minutes later, and his arrival created an impression akin to admiration. In the eyes of the criminal class he was an heroic figure who had assumed the responsibility of saving the life of one of their fraternity. The eminent counsel's success in the few criminal cases in which he had consented to appear had gained him the respectful esteem of those who considered themselves oppressed by the law, and the spectators on the pavement might have raised a cheer for him if their exuberance had not been restrained by the proximity of the policeman guarding the entrance.

When the court was opened Inspector Chippenfield took a seat in the body of the court behind the barrister's bench. He ranged his eye over the closely-packed spectators in the gallery, and shook his head with manifest disapproval. It seemed to him that the worst criminals in London had managed to elude the vigilance of the sergeant outside in order to see the trial of their notorious colleague, Fred Birchill. He pointed out their presence to Rolfe, who was seated alongside him.

"There's that scoundrel Bob Rogers, who slipped through our hands over the Ealing case, and his pal, Breaker Jim, who's just done seven years, looking down and grinning at us," he angrily whispered. "I'll give them something to grin about before they're much older. You'd think Breaker would have had enough of the Old Bailey to last him a lifetime. And look at that row alongside of them—there's Morris, Hart, Harry the Hooker, and that chap Willis who murdered the pawnbroker in Commercial Road last year, only we could never sheet it home to him. And two rows behind them is old Charlie, the Covent Garden 'drop,' with Holder Jack and Kemp, Birchill's mate. Why, they're everywhere. The inquest was nothing to this, Rolfe."

"Kemp must be thanking his lucky stars he wasn't in that Riversbrook job with Fred Birchill," said Rolfe, "for they usually work together. And there's Crewe, up in the gallery."

"Where?" exclaimed Inspector Chippenfield, with an indignant start.

"Up there behind that pillar there—no, the next one. See, he's looking down at you."

Crewe caught the inspector's eye, and nodded and smiled in a friendly fashion, but Inspector Chippenfield returned the salutation with a haughty glare.

"The impudence of that chap is beyond belief," he said to his subordinate. "One would have thought he'd have kept away from court after his wild-goose chase to Scotland and piling up expenses, but not him! Brazen impudence is the stock-in-trade of the private detective. If Scotland Yard had a little more of the impudence of the private detective, Rolfe, we should be better appreciated."

"I suppose he's come in the hopes of seeing the jury acquit Birchill," said Rolfe.

"No doubt," replied Inspector Chippenfield. "But he's come to the wrong shop. A good jury should convict without leaving the box if the case is properly put before them by the prosecution. Crewe would like to triumph over us, but it is our turn to win."

But Inspector Chippenfield was wrong in thinking that Crewe's presence in court was due to a desire for the humiliation of his rivals. Crewe had spent most of the previous night reading and revising his summaries and notes of the Riversbrook case, and in minutely reviewing his investigations of it. Over several pipes in the early morning hours he pondered long and deeply on the secret of Sir Horace Fewbanks's murder, without finding a solution which satisfactorily accounted for all the strange features of the case. But one thing he felt sure of was that Birchill had not committed the murder. He based that belief partly on the butler's confession, and partly on his own discoveries. He believed Hill to be a cunning scoundrel who had overreached the police for some purpose of his own by accusing Birchill, and who, to make his story more probable, had even implicated himself in the supposed burglary as a terrorised accomplice. And Crewe had been unable to test the butler's story, or find out what game he was playing, because of the assiduity with which the principal witness for the prosecution had been "nursed" by the police from the moment he made his confession. Crewe bit hard into his amber mouthpiece in vexation as he recalled the ostrich-like tactics of Inspector Chippenfield, who, having accepted Hill's story as genuine, had officially baulked all his efforts to see the man and question him about it.

He had come to court with the object of witnessing Birchill's behaviour in the dock and the efforts of any of his criminal friends to communicate with him. As a man who had had considerable experience in criminal trials he knew the irresistible desire of the criminal in the gallery of the court to encourage the man in the dock to keep up his courage. Communications of the kind had to be made by signs. It was Crewe's impression that by watching Birchill in the dock and Birchill's friends in the gallery he might pick up a valuable hint or two. It was also his intention to study closely the defence which Counsel for the prisoner intended to put forward.

It was therefore with a feeling of mingled annoyance and surprise that Crewe, looking down from his point of vantage at the bevy of fashionably-dressed ladies in the body of the court, recognised Mrs. Holymead, Mademoiselle Chiron and Miss Fewbanks seated side by side, engaged in earnest conversation. Before he could withdraw from their view behind the pillar in front of him, Miss Fewbanks looked up and saw him. She bowed to him in friendly recognition, and Crewe saw her whisper to Mrs. Holymead, who glanced quickly in his direction and then as quickly averted her gaze. But in that fleeting glance of her beautiful dark eyes Crewe detected an expression of fear, as though she dreaded his presence, and he noticed that she shivered slightly as she turned to resume her conversation with Miss Fewbanks.

His Honour Mr. Justice Hodson entered, and the persons in the court scrambled hurriedly to their feet to pay their tribute of respect to British law, as exemplified in the person of a stout red-faced old gentleman wearing a scarlet gown and black sash, and attended by four of the Sheriffs of London in their fur-trimmed robes. The judge bowed in response and took his seat. The spectators resumed theirs, craning their necks eagerly to look at the accused man, Birchill, who was brought into the dock by two warders. The work of empanelling a jury commenced, and when it was completed Mr. Walters, K.C., opened the case for the prosecution.

Mr. Walters was a long-winded Counsel who had detested the late Mr. Justice Fewbanks because of the latter's habit of interrupting the addresses of Counsel with the object of inducing them to curtail their remarks. This practice was not only annoying to Counsel, who necessarily knew better than the judge what the jury ought to be told, but it also tended to hold Counsel up to ridicule in the eyes of ignorant jurymen as a man who could not do his work properly without the watchful correction of the judge. But Mr. Walters, whose legal training had imbued in him a respect for Latin tags, subscribed to the adage, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Therefore he began his address to the jury with a glowing reference to the loss, he might almost say the irreparable loss, which the judiciary had sustained, he would go so far as to say the loss which the nation had sustained by the death, the violent death, in short, the murder, of an eminent judge of the High Court Bench, whose clear and vigorous intellect, whose marvellous mastery of the legal principles laid down by the judicial giants of the past, whose inexhaustible knowledge drawn from the storehouses of British law, whose virile interpretations of the principles of British justice, whose unfailing courtesy and consideration to Counsel, the memory of which would long be cherished by those who had had the privilege of pleading before him, had made him an acquisition and an ornament to a Bench which in the eyes of the nation had always represented, and at no time more than the present—at this point Mr. Walters bowed to the presiding judge—the embodiment of legal knowledge, legal experience, and legal wisdom.

After this tribute to the murdered man and the presiding judge, Mr. Walters proceeded to lay the facts of the crime before the jury, who had read all about them in the newspapers.

With methodical care he built up the case against the accused man, classifying the points of evidence against him in categorical order for the benefit of the jury. The most important witness for the prosecution was a man known as James Hill, who had been in Sir Horace Fewbanks's employ as a butler. Hill's connection with the prisoner was in some aspects unfortunate, for himself, and no doubt counsel for the defense would endeavour to discredit his evidence on that account, but the jury, when they heard the butler tell his story in the witness box, would have little difficulty in coming to the conclusion that the man Hill was the victim of circumstances and his own weakness of temperament. However much they might be disposed to blame him for the course he had pursued, he was innocent of all complicity in his master's death, and had done his best to help the ends of justice by coming forward with a voluntary confession to the police.

Mr. Walters made no attempt to conceal or extenuate the black page in Hill's past, but he asked the jury to believe that Hill had bitterly repented of his former crime, and would have continued to lead an honest life as Sir Horace Fewbanks's butler, if ill fate had not forged a cruel chain of circumstances to link him to his past life and drag him down by bringing him in contact with the accused man Birchill, whom he had met in prison. Sir Horace Fewbanks was the self-appointed guardian of a young woman named Doris Fanning, the daughter of a former employee on his country estate, who had died leaving her penniless. Sir Horace had deemed it his duty to bring up the girl and give her a start in life. After educating her in a style suitable to her station, he sent her to London and paid for music lessons for her in order to fit her for a musical career, for which she showed some aptitude. Unfortunately the young woman had a self-willed and unbalanced temperament, and she gave her benefactor much trouble. Sir Horace bore patiently with her until she made the chance acquaintance of Birchill, and became instantly fascinated by him. The acquaintance speedily drifted into intimacy, and the girl became the pliant tool of Birchill, who acquired an almost magnetic influence over her. As the intimacy progressed she seemed to have become a willing partner in his criminal schemes.

When Sir Horace Fewbanks heard that the girl had drifted into an association with a criminal like Birchill he endeavoured to save her from her folly by remonstrating with her, and the girl promised to give up Birchill, but did not do so. When Sir Horace found out that he was being deceived he was compelled to renounce her. Birchill, who had been living on the girl, was furious with anger when he learnt that Sir Horace had cut off the monetary allowance he had been making her, and, on discovering by some means that his former prison associate Hill was now the butler at Sir Horace Fewbanks's house, he planned his revenge. He sent the girl Fanning to Riversbrook with a message to Hill, directing him, under threat of exposure, to see him at the Westminster flat.

Hill, who dreaded nothing so much as an exposure of that past life of his which he hoped was a secret between his master and himself, kept the appointment. Birchill told him he intended to rob the judge's house in order to revenge himself on Sir Horace for cutting off the girl's allowance, and he asked Hill to assist him in carrying out the burglary. Hill strenuously demurred at first, but weakly allowed himself to be terrorised into compliance under Birchill's threats of exposure. Hill's participation in the crime was to be confined to preparing a plan of Riversbrook as a guide for Birchill. Birchill said nothing about murder at this time, but there is no doubt he contemplated violence when he first spoke to Hill. When Hill, alarmed by his master's return on the actual night for which the burglary had been arranged, hurried across to the flat to urge Birchill to abandon the contemplated burglary, Birchill obstinately decided to carry out the crime, and left the flat with a revolver in his hand, threatening to murder Sir Horace if he found him, because of his harsh treatment—as he termed it—of the girl Fanning.

"Birchill left the flat at nine o'clock," continued Mr. Walters, who had now reached the vital facts of the night of the murder. "I ask the jury to take careful note of the time and the subsequent times mentioned, for they have an important bearing on the circumstantial evidence against the accused man. He returned, according to Hill's evidence, shortly after midnight. Evidence will be called to show that Birchill, or a man answering his description, boarded a tramcar at Euston Road at 9.30 p.m., and journeyed in it to Hampstead. He was observed both at Euston Road and the Hampstead terminus by the conductor, because of his obvious desire to avoid attention. There were only two other passengers on the top of the car when it left Euston Road. The conductor directed the attention of the driver to his movements, and they both watched him till he disappeared in the direction of the Heath. In fairness to the prisoner, it was necessary to point out, however, that neither the conductor nor the driver can identify him positively as the man they had seen on their car that night, but both will swear that to the best of their belief Birchill is the man. Assuming that it was the prisoner who travelled to Hampstead by the Euston Road tram—a route he would probably prefer because it took him to Hampstead by the most unfrequented way—he would have a distance of nearly a mile to walk across Hampstead Heath to Tanton Gardens, where Sir Horace Fewbanks's house was situated. The evidence of the tram-men is that he set off across the Heath at a very rapid rate. The tram reached Hampstead at four minutes past ten, so that, by walking fast, it would be possible for a young energetic man to reach Riversbrook before a quarter to eleven. Another five minutes would see an experienced housebreaker like Birchill inside the house. At twenty minutes past eleven a young man named Ryder, who had wandered into Tanton Gardens while endeavouring to take a short cut home, heard the sound of a report, which at the time he took to be the noise of a door violently slammed, coming from the direction of Riversbrook. A few moments afterwards he saw a man climb over the front fence of Riversbrook to the street. He drew back cautiously into the shade of one of the chestnut trees of the street avenue, and saw the man plainly as he ran past him. Ryder will swear that the man he saw was Birchill."

"It's a lie! It's a lie! You're trying to hang him, you wicked man. Oh, Fred, Fred!"

The cry proceeded from the girl Doris Fanning. Her unbalanced temperament had been unable to bear the strain of sitting there and listening to Mr. Walters' cold inexorable construction of a legal chain of evidence against her lover. She rose to her feet, shrieking wildly, and gesticulating menacingly at Mr. Walters. The Society ladies turned eagerly in their seats to take in through their lorgnons every detail of the interruption.

"Remove that woman," the judge sternly commanded.

Several policemen hastened to her, and the girl was partly hustled and partly carried out of court, shrieking as she went. When the commotion caused by the scene subsided, the judge irritably requested to be informed who the woman was.

"I don't know, my lord," replied Mr. Walters. "Perhaps—" He stopped and bent over to Detective Rolfe, who was pulling at his gown. "Er—yes, I'm informed by Detective Rolfe of Scotland Yard, my lord, that the young woman is a witness in the case."

"Then why was she permitted to remain in court?" asked Sir Henry Hodson angrily. "It is a piece of gross carelessness."

"I do not know, my lord. I was unaware she was a witness until this moment," returned Mr. Walters, with a discreet glance in the direction of Detective Rolfe, as an indication to His Honour that the judicial storm might safely veer in that direction. Sir Henry took the hint and administered such a stinging rebuke to Detective Rolfe that that officer's face took on a much redder tint before it was concluded. Then the judge motioned to Mr. Walters to resume the case.

Counsel, with his index finger still in the place in his brief where he had been interrupted, rose to his feet again and turned to the jury.

"Birchill returned to the flat at Westminster shortly after midnight," he continued. "Hill had been compelled by Birchills threats to remain at the flat with the girl while Birchill visited Riversbrook, and the first thing Birchill told him on his return was that he had found Sir Horace Fewbanks dead in his house when he entered it. On his way back from committing the crime belated caution had probably dictated to Birchill the wisdom of endeavouring to counteract his previous threat to murder Sir Horace Fewbanks. He probably remembered that Hill, who had heard the threat, was an unwilling participator in the plan for the burglary, and might therefore denounce him to the police for the greater crime if he (Birchill) admitted that he had committed it. In order to guard against this contingency still further Birchill forced Hill to join in writing a letter to Scotland Yard, acquainting them with the murder, and the fact that the body was lying in the empty house. Birchill's object in acting thus was a twofold one. He dared not trust Hill to pretend to discover the body the next day and give information to the police, for fear he should not be able to retain sufficient control of himself to convince the detectives that he was wholly ignorant of the crime, and he also thought that if Hill had a share in writing the letter he would feel an additional complicity in the crime, and keep silence for his own sake. Birchill was right in his calculations—up to a point. Hill was at first too frightened to disclose what he knew, but as time went on his affection for his murdered master, and his desire to bring the murderer to justice, overcame his feelings of fear for his own share in bringing about the crime, and he went and confessed everything to the police, regardless of the consequences that might recoil upon his own head. The case against Birchill depends largely on Hill's evidence, and the jury, when they have heard his story in the witness-box, and bearing in mind the extenuating circumstances of his connection with the crime, will have little hesitation in coming to the conclusion that the prisoner in the dock murdered Sir Horace Fewbanks."

The first witness called was Inspector Seldon, who gave evidence as to his visit to Riversbrook shortly before 1 p.m. on the 19th of August as the result of information received, and his discovery of the dead body of Sir Horace Fewbanks. He described the room in which the body was found; the position of the body; and he identified the blood-stained clothes produced by the prosecution as being those in which the dead man was dressed when the body was discovered. In cross-examination by Holymead he stated that Sir Horace Fewbanks was fully dressed when the body was found. The witness also stated in cross-examination that none of the electric lights in the house were burning when the body was discovered.

The next witness was Dr. Slingsby, the pathological expert from the Home Office who had made the post mortem examination, and who was much too great a man to be kept waiting while other witnesses of more importance to the case but of less personal consequence went into the box. Dr. Slingsby stated that his examinations had revealed that death had been caused by a bullet wound which had penetrated the left lung, causing internal hemorrhage.

Mr. Finnis, the junior counsel for the defence, suggested to the witness that the wound might have been self-inflicted, but Dr. Slingsby permitted himself to be positive that such was not the case. With professional caution he assured Mr. Finnis, who briefly cross-examined him, that it was impossible for him to state how long Sir Horace Fewbanks had been dead. Rigor mortis, in the case of the human body, set in from eight to ten hours after death, and it was between three and four o'clock in the afternoon of the day the crime was discovered that he first saw the corpse. The body was quite stiff and cold then.

"Is it not possible for death to have taken place nineteen or twenty hours before you saw the body?" asked Mr. Finnis, eagerly.

"Quite possible," replied Dr. Slingsby.

"Is it not also possible, from the state of the body when you examined it, that death took place within sixteen hours of your examination of the body?" asked Mr. Walters, as Mr. Finnis sat down with the air of a man who had elicited an important point.

"Quite possible," replied Dr. Slingsby, with the prim air of a professional man who valued his reputation too highly to risk it by committing himself to anything definite.

Dr. Slingsby was allowed to leave the box, and Inspector Chippenfield took his place. Inspector Chippenfield did not display any professional reticence about giving his evidence—at least, not on the surface, though he by no means took the court completely into his confidence as to all that had passed between him and Hill. On the other hand he told the judge and jury everything that his professional experience prompted him as necessary and proper for them to know in order to bring about a conviction. In the course of his evidence he made several attempts to introduce damaging facts as to Birchill's past, but Mr. Holymead protested to the judge. Counsel for the defence protested that he had allowed his learned friend in opening the case a great deal of latitude as to the relations which had previously existed between the witness Hill and the prisoner, because the defence did not intend to attempt to hide the fact that the prisoner had a criminal record, but he had no intention of allowing a police witness to introduce irrelevant matter in order to prejudice the jury against the prisoner. His Honour told the witness to confine himself to answering the questions put to him, and not to volunteer information.

After this rebuke Inspector Chippenfield resumed giving evidence. He related what Birchill had said when arrested, and declared that he was positive that the footprints found outside the kitchen window were made by the boots produced in court which Birchill had been wearing at the time he was arrested. He produced a jemmy which he had found at Fanning's flat, and said that it fitted the marks on the window at Riversbrook which had been forced on the night of the 18th of August.

Inspector Chippenfield's evidence was followed by that of the two tramway employees, who declared that to the best of their belief Birchill was the man who boarded their tram at half-past nine on the night of the 18th of August, and rode to the terminus at Hampstead, which they reached at 10.4 p.m. Both the witnesses showed a very proper respect for the law, and were obviously relieved when the brief cross-examination was over and they were free to go back to their tram-car.

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